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From the Archives: Exclusive interview with Alexander Payne following the success of “Sideways”

October 29, 2011 20 comments

From the Archives: Exclusive interview with Alexander Payne following the success of “Sideways”

©by Leo Adam Biga

Origiinally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Even before Alexander Payne’s Sideways premiered September 13 to ecstatic reviews at the Toronto International Film Festival, where he soaked up the accolades, it was hailed as a refreshing change from an artist whose previous harsh satires (Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt) made you squirm as much as laugh.

Sideways, whose national release launched on October 27, marks a departure for Payne in two ways. For the first time in his feature career, he left behind Nebraska’s familiar confines to cast his sardonic gaze elsewhere. Using as a starting point Rex Pickett’s unpublished novel of the same name, Payne and writing partner Jim Taylor found the book’s central California wine country the perfect setting and context for a story about love. Yes, love. Love of wine. Love of self. Platonic love. Brotherly love. Romantic love. Ah, love. It’s something in short supply in Payne’s earlier films, where emotions are savaged and relationships discarded.

After Toronto came the New York Film Festival where Sideways was the official closing night selection on October 17. Payne said he was “very happy” with the prestigious NYFF closing night slot. A darling of the NYFF, where About Schmidt was accorded opening night honors in 2001, Payne is being feted like the star he is in the international film community. In a statement announcing the program, festival chairman and Film Society of Lincoln Center program director Richard Pena said: “Even with now just four films to his credit, Alexander Payne has established himself as a major voice in contemporary American cinema. I can’t think of another filmmaker working today who is able to create characters as complex, as contradictory and as richly human.”

The early warm reception for Sideways, a Fox Searchlight release, bodes well for its commercial potential. The Hollywood buzz says Oscar nods are in store for Payne and star Paul Giamatti. Payne thinks audiences and critics are responding to the evolutionary process he takes with his work. Having returned from the highs of Toronto and New York, he is now preparing to write a new project that promises to be “current and political.”

Humanism and Character-Driven 

Leading film industry trade reviewers Todd McCarthy of Variety and Kirk Honeycutt of the Hollywood Reporter see in Sideways something Payne has strived for — a return to the character-driven movies he cut his teeth on. McCarthy wrote, “Moving away from his native Nebraska for the first time onto what proves to be even more fertile soil … Alexander Payne has single-handedly restored humanism as a force in American films.”

According to Honeycutt, Payne captures in his “hysterically funny yet melancholy comedy … subtle undertones of the great character movies of the 1970s and a delicate though strong finish that fills one with hope for its most forlorn characters.”

“If it’s true, that’s a nice thing for someone to say,” said Payne, whose intimate cinema explores the wreckage of ordinary people doing desperate things to reclaim their lost lives. His films are never just funny or dramatic. They are, like life, a mix.

“I aspire to a certain humanism in my films in that they’re films just about people,” he said. “I don’t need to see a gun. I don’t need to have a chase. I don’t need highly contrived situations. I just want to have situations, which will bare open, in a humorous way but also in a dramatic way, what’s going on in the hearts and souls of people. And they’re comedies. This one get huge laughs. I think, too, people like the emotion in it and the hopeful note at the end. Yet, there’s nothing sentimentalized. If feels earned and felt.

“Also what I hear is that the film is intelligent. Like hopefully my other films, too, it doesn’t talk down to the viewer. It respects the viewer. I mean, I always think an audience is smarter than I am, not dumber. So often, at least in recent American filmmaking, there’s a pressure — however spoken or unspoken — to dilute the intelligence or the sophisticated references or the quality of the jokes or something for a more general audience, and I just don’t like to do that.”

Payne’s comedic sensibilities and instincts have never been sharper. Three scenes in particular stand out, and all involve Giamatti as the lovably neurotic wine junkie Miles. In one, some bad news sends Miles careening for the nearest bottle, which he grabs like a suicide weapon and proceeds to drain while stumbling down a hill side. In another, the idiocy of winery etiquette sets him off and he loses it in a fit sure to join Jack Nicholson’s famous diner rant in Five Easy Pieces. Finally, to help his buddy Jack out of a jam, Miles retrieves some valuables left behind in a house, and nearly gets killed for his trouble.

YOU CAN READ THE REST OF THE STORY IN MY NEW BOOK-

Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film, A Reporter’s Perspective 1998-2012

A compilation of my articles about Payne and his work.  Now available for pre-ordering.

 

 

 



 

 

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Exhibit by photographer Jim Krantz and his artist grandfather, the late David Bialac engages in an art conversation through the generations

October 28, 2011 6 comments

©David Bialac, “Untitled”

 

 

A few weeks ago I mentioned I would be posting a story about another photographer you should know about, and here it is. His name is Jim Krantz and he does work of the highest order, so high in fact that he was named Advertising Photographer of the Year by the International Photography Awards in 2010 and International Photographer of the Year at the IPAs Lucie Awards. Jim has an exhibition opening in his hometown of Omaha on Nov. 4 that has deep meaning for him because it displays his work alongside that of the man who first inspired and nurtured his artistic leanings and who gave him his first camera – his late grandfather David Bialac, who was an artist himself. Look for my story in next week’s The Reader (www.thereader.com). If you’re into photography and to stories about the journeys that photographers make in their life and work, then you’ll find plenty of captivating things to see and read on this blog. You’ll find stories here on such noted photographers as Larry Ferguson, Don Doll, Monte Kruse, Pat Drickey, Jim Hendrickson, Rudy Smith, and Ken Jarecke. You can choose their stories individually by clicking on their names in the Categories listing on the right or just choose Photography. Or you can search for my stories about them in the search box.

NOTE: The Krantz-Bialac show is called Generations Shared and it runs Nov. 4-27 at the Anderson O’Brien Gallery in Omaha’s Old Market.

 

Exhibit by photographer Jim Krantz and his artist grandfather, the late David Bialac engages in an art conversation through the generations

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to be published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

An aesthetic conversation that began decades ago continues in Generations Shared. The Nov. 4 through 27 exhibition features work by internationally renowned photographer Jim Krantz alongside that of his late maternal grandfather, David Bialac, an Omaha painter, sculptor and fine furniture-maker who was Krantz’s first and perhaps most important artistic mentor.

Krantz, who assisted Bialac for a time, says, “My grandpa had a very good reputation.” Krantz believes Bialac (1905-1978) should be better known and more appreciated today. He views the new exhibition at Anderson O’Brien Gallery in the Old Market as a tribute to the man he credits with kindling his own creative passion.

The tribute subject owned Dave Bialac Builders in northeast Omaha. At his 52nd and Hamilton Streets home studio he developed an alchemy-like enameling process that involved arranging multi-colored glass shards and powder on glass and copper plates and then firing them in a kiln. The bonded-fused objects took on trippy abstract patterns. His distinctive work adorned custom kitchens and decorative installations and sculptures he designed for some of Omaha’s most distinctive homes and public-private spaces, such as the Mutual of Omaha lobby.

“He signed his pieces,” says Bialac. “There was a lot of pride and craftsmanship in what he did. He did custom woodworking for a living but his real passion was his artwork.”

 

 

©David Bialac, “Untitled”

 

 

Every Saturday morning Krantz, the devoted young grandson, joined Bialac in his home studio for what the old man jokingly called “baking cookies.” The self-taught abstract expressionist and his boy apprentice made this a ritual for years. After Bialac suffered a severe stroke he gave Jimmy access to an expressive tool all his own via the studio camera he kept to document his work: a Minolta SR-T 101.

Krantz recalls his grandfather’s wizened admonition: “Jimmy, I want you to work with this camera. Make some pictures, but remember the kinds of things we did in the studio.” It proved an irresistible invitation for the protege. Out of obligation to his elder and his own curiosity Krantz experimented. The camera might as well have been a new appendage as inseparable as he and the Minolta became.

Their contract called for Krantz to return the camera once Bialac recovered, so they could resume working together. Bialac never got better. “It was a shame because he was an amazing, vital, creative force trapped in his body after the stroke. It’s got to be the most debilitating thing because his mind was racing and there was no way to respond. So all I was left with was memories and a camera,” says Krantz, who went on to study photography and earn a design degree.

As a professional Krantz gained a rep as a visual stylist who makes any shoot, regardless of subject matter, a rigorous exploration of light, space, form, shadow. He conquered the Omaha ad market before moving to Chicago 12 years ago.

Today, Krantz enjoys a high-end career as a advertising, documentary and art photographer traveling the world for Fortune 500 clients and personal projects. His signature commercial work came on a Marlboro tobacco campaign. His post-modern The Way of the West imagery earned him International Photography of the Year prizes as 2010’s best advertising photographer and top overall photographer.

 

 

The Way of the West, ©photo by Jim Krantz

 

 

More recently his images from inside the forbidden zone of Russia’s Chernobyl nuclear disaster have captured attention via his book and exhibition, Homage: Remembering Chernobyl. His Chernobyl work comes to KANEKO in April.

The Chicago-based Krantz, who retains strong Omaha ties, loves the idea of showing his work with that of his Saturday morning studio session mentor. More than most exhibits, the show examines creativity as legacy, a theme much on Krantz’s mind as his career’s reached new heights and he’s recognized how indebted he is to teachers like his grandfather.

He speaks of feeling connected to Bialac and sensing his guiding hand. As a kid, he never considered those weekend idylls with “Poppy” as classes, but in retrospect they were. Among the lessons taught: focus and discipline.

“He was a very warm and loving guy but he was very concentrated on this stuff,” says Krantz.

As the boy alchemist’s helper, Krantz says he’d studiously watch his grandfather manipulating “threads of glass on a plate, then staring at it, and with tweezers moving it in such a nuance of a move” before transferring them to the kiln. “I had no idea what he was doing — all I knew was this was serious shit.”

“My grandpa was a very eccentric man, I have to say, doing very abstract, very unusual things. I’m telling you, this guy was out there, but he had this quality of craftsmanship. He’d take his copper enameling and then he’d build big huge installations of wood furniture and whatever and they’d all be applied to the furniture. His work’s amazing. Really quite strong. Really beautifully crafted.”

The Krantz family possesses a nice collection of Bialac’s work, but many pieces have been lost to time.

Krantz describes Bialac as someone who straddled the Old World and Modern Age as a creative.

“He was from another generation,” says Krantz. “I don’t even know where he got his initial inspiration because he came from working class type people and he got sidetracked somehow deep into very abstract thinking, concepts, art, color and design, and then it evolved into sculpture with natural elements and all of these things — brass, rock, metal, glass, enamel.”

The studio where he and Bialac bonded over art is fixed in Krantz’s mind.

“I remember it so well. It was an immaculately beautiful space, really organized. A very busy shop. You could just tell he was really meticulous and thoughtful about everything he did. I remember the work that came out of it was so different than the setting. I’m not saying clinical but it’s funny how the space did not feel like the product, which was kind of very free form and organic. That’s why process was so important to him.”

As time goes by Krantz feels ever more the reverberations of Bialac’s work in his own.

“Over the years I’ve been looking back at my work and his work and it’s like the parallels are so strikingly similar, even in our own visual vocabulary, and I know it’s all from just literally every Saturday standing by this guy’s side watching him work. It’s just part of me.”

Most of their communication was nonverbal, with Kranz observing his grandfather communing with pieces, responding to subtle variations, tweaking this or that. And while they never formally discussed methodology, Krantz gleaned some direction for his own artistry and field of vision. He realizes now he adopted, intuitively, from Bialac a way of apprehending the world.

“I did the same thing with the camera he did pushing those little things around. I was always aware of everything I saw in the viewfinder because he always told me, ‘What you see on this plate — how do all these things fit?’I put a camera to my eye and I see a rectangle. There’s a tree branch here and a rock there and a person over here. All of these things become abstract shapes.

“It isn’t so much documenting, it’s arranging. So I started to learn at an early age that I can look through this camera just like I looked at that plate. Once you have the shapes in the right spot then you can relate to them on a more personal level. The thing that was wired into me early was I knew how to put things on that plate and I could transfer it to the rectangle of a camera.”

He doesn’t know why his grandfather offered him the camera but suspects he noted in him a kindred spirit. “It’s possible he was predisposed to it, I was predisposed to it,” and the camera served as connective medium. Whatever the reason, Krantz found in photography what he’d never had before and gladly lost himself in.

In his artist’s statement he writes, “My camera became a part of me and I photographed everything I saw…and have never stopped.” Like Bialac’s work, photography is a process. It begins with a camera and subject, then knowing where to stand and when to shoot, taking the shot and finally developing and printing the image. Not so different than what goes into making a three-dimensional art object. Leaving oneself open to interpreting and discovering things is key.

As Krantz writes, “Photography, too, had the familiar quality of surprise I was accustomed to when the enameled ‘cookies’ would emerge from the kiln.”

Photography gave this “dorky kid” a potent process to call his own. “All of a sudden I had a little bit of an identity. Everybody loves to have something you do.” He says his open-minded parents (his family owns Allen Furniture) provided the freedom to pursue his passion “as far as photography could carry me. They knew I loved it. They encouraged me.” At 18 Krantz was so enthralled by the expressive possibilities he built his own darkroom at home and began educating himself.

He described his magnificent obsession to Rangefinder Magazine:

“I was amazed by the process in the darkroom and was swept up by the art and science of photography. I searched out books and images from every source and grew very attracted to the West Coast photographers, studying the work of (Ansel) Adams, Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham, Wynn Bullock, Minor White…”

 

 

A very young Jim Krantz with an iconic mentor, Ansel Adams, ©photo Jim Krantz

 

 

His parents agreed to his driving his Renault, alone, to Calif. to take a workshop from the great Yosemite documenter, Ansel Adams. Krantz had just graduated from Westside High. On his website, www.jimkrantz.com, is a picture of Krantz, looking even younger than his years, posed beside the icon’s home mailbox. Other pictures show the acolyte with the veteran imagemaker in candid moments.

The first day Krantz met Adams he ended up printing images with him in his state-of-the-art darkroom. “I was nervous, I was unsure of myself.” He recalls few details other than the bearded sage offering critiques of his beginner’s work.

Krantz felt compelled to learn everything he could and venturing off to seek a master’s advice was part of that. “I just had the sense this was something I had to do,” he says. In Adams he found a grandfather surrogate.

“It was very familiar. Adams talked about arrangement, shape, form, tonality. I thought, ‘This is the same thing I learned from my grandpa.’ Both were very passionate, focused, attached.”

 

 

©Jim Krantz, “Frontier”

 

 

The icon’s approach to nature informed how Krantz treated grand landscapes. Krantz repeated that 1970s trek west multiple times to work with Adams. “I’d drive out there, take a workshop, and come home all inspired. I was always the youngest one in the class.” “Now,” adds Krantz, who’s continued taking workshops from other photographers, “I’m the oldest guy in class.”

The workshops are intensive immersion experiences he throws himself into and comes out of reinvigorated. “I continue to go and I continue to learn.”

All the work he exposed himself to and all the photo grammar he learned early on emboldened him to try new things. Among those who’ve consciously influenced him, he says, is Wynn Bullock. “This guy worked on a totally different level. His work resonated with me on a much deeper level,” says Krantz. Bullock’s evocative Navigation by Numbers is embedded in Krantz’s mental file of essential images. As are images by Paul Caponigro, Fredrick Sommer and others.

“Sometimes people don’t really understand where ideas come from. The whole concept of the source of ideas and where they start in a person’s life and then how they manifest later, I find kind of fascinating. You don’t know where these thoughts develop and how they develop or why, but there’s catalysts in your life.”

It’s clear to Krantz his grandfather was a major catalyst. He couldn’t have known where it would all lead, saying, “I never had a clue any of this would kindle and turn into something like this.” He feels fortunate to have had a nurturing start.

“Between encouragement and interest and passion, it’s like a stew that simmers,” he says. “I had all the right tools at hand: the love of my parents, their approval, my interest, my grandpa’s input, my desire to do this.”

 

 

©Jim Krantz, “Untitled”

 

 

He’s never lost his enthusiasm.

“When I have a camera in my hand, and it’s no different today than before, it’s like a ticket to anywhere. It’s the damnedest thing. It’s such an amazing vehicle. It’s like, ‘I wonder what types of images are going to go through this thing this time?’ I’ve had some bad experiences and dangerous ones and some joyful and astounding ones…you just never know what you’re going to get. I just never want it to stop.”

He balances big budget ad projects with scaled down personal work, applying the same rigor to each while employing wildly different technical approaches.

Advertising shoots, like Way of the West, are at one end of the spectrum with their crews, talent, lighting rigs and set pieces. It’s then he works in “a transmedia” space. Using a RED digital camera he combines motion and stills, animating still frames and harvesting high output stills from motion. He works collaboratively with computer geeks and editors.

“All of this combined together transcends further than any of these by themselves are capable of really expressing,” Krantz says of the merging.

The possibilities are delicious and a bit delirious. “It’s funny because I feel like I’ve got more to learn now than I ever did before. I feel as though I’m starting from scratch because there’s a huge learning curve with this.”

To portray cowboys in Way of the West, he says, “I wanted to show this in a much more contemporary, edgy, urban, hip way,” much like snowboarders or skateboarders. “All these guys are cut from the same cloth. My vision of these cowboys isn’t sepia-toned. It’s a very cool, strong, hip energy. I don’t like the word techie but the processes I used are current — the way the film’s handled, the angles, the perspectives, the colors, the styling. I wanted it to have a style and a sense of fashion and yet the core of it be the Wild West.”

The other end of the spectrum finds him going to Chernobyl or Cuba or Cambodia, alone, with a single camera and a fixed lens. “It’s pure seeing and pure responding,” he says. “Not only is it poignant and important and talks to people on a very different level, it’s a lot more visceral, it’s a lot more about human emotion.”

All of it, from the epic to the intimate, he views as part of a bi-polar continuum.

“That’s how I visualize how these two things interact because, you see, one without the other doesn’t work. and it’s always been that way for me. The basis of all of this is having a very strong fundamental background. That allows you to take chances.

Technical proficiency will lead to artistic freedom. You first learn how to record but then you learn how to interpret. Then at that point you can do lots of things because a camera is basically an instrument and it’s played like anything else.

“A stylistic approach can only happen after you’ve developed enough to understand where you’re going, how you see the world and having the confidence to do it the way you see it. And quite frankly it’s taken me a long time.”

For all the “flattering” honors to come his way he says, “I don’t look back very often. I spend more time looking forward than backwards for sure. But more often than not I’m just looking at right now.” Generations Shared is a notable exception. “It’s important to me,” he says. Once he conceived the show he had to find a way to create companion images that echoed his grandfather’s abstract works.

“I had to develop a process I’d never even considered or heard of before in order to reinterpret what he did with copper and glass plates in a kiln. In essence I’m painting negatives and then these painted negatives become the positives which become the art. It’s the only way I could really figure out to communicate-express these same abstract sensibilities.”

He says the images he created may look photo-shopped but they’re actually “pure photography.” At its core, he says, the exhibition “is a dialogue about what a mentor is and how threads of knowledge and information are transferred — DNA or life experience, I don’t which one it is. But input equals output. What goes in comes out. And it’s like this river just flows.”

Anderson O’Brien Gallery is at 1108 Jackson Street. For hours, visit www.aobfineart.com or call 402-884-0911.

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Murder He Wrote: Reporter-author David Krajicek finds niche as true crime storyteller

October 28, 2011 1 comment

A subject I’ve longed writing about is David Krajicek, a reporter and author whose niche telling true crime stories has made him a very nice career. My mini-profile that follows, which by the way is soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com), doesn’t allow nearly the space I need to do true justice to his story, but I figure it’s a good start because I’m confident I’ll be revisiting his life and work again down the road. Among his new best-sellers on Kindle are True Crime: Missouri and Death by Rock ‘n’ Roll.  I have yet to read those, but I have read his Murder, American Style and I can vouch for it. The Omaha native got his start in journalism in his hometown but made his mark in New York City, with the Daily News. He’s freelance now but he still has a prominent slot with the News as author if its long-running Justice Story feature. Krajicek still makes it back to his old Omaha haunts and I look forward to catching up with at one of these this fall.

 

 

David Krajicek

 

 

Murder He Wrote: Reporter-author David Krajicek finds niche as true crime storyteller

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

South Omaha native son David Krajicek’s crime writing has branded him Mr. Murder, so it’s only apt he looks the heavy with his bearded mug, bouncer glare and imposing size. This tabloid poet and rebel, who hails from a long line of barkeeps and meatpackers, gets his rabble-rouse on playing old-school R&B.

The ex-New York Daily News crime reporter and bureau chief still writes the rag’s Justice Story feature but mainly authors Kindle best seller true crime books. The Catskills resident is back touting True Crime: Missouri and Death by Rock ‘n’ Roll. He did a signing at his folks’ Lodge Bar & Cafe in LaPlatte, Neb. “My literary home base,” he calls it. He’s done his share of bartending and elbow bending there.

Fittingly, it was at a bar he and a buddy fixed on taking a UNO class together, Introduction to Mass Communications, only because it seemed easy. Krajicek, then studying business, changed majors and the course of his life when instructor Warren Francke “absolutely turned me on to the possibilities of journalism.”

At Ryan High Krajicek got an inkling he might be writer-material. “I was in Sr. Rita’s writing class when she looked across the table at me and said, ‘You know, you could do this for a living.’ That was kind of the first clue I had some knack.”

Observing things and spinning tales came naturally. “I definitely was a watcher and a collector of stories from the time I was a little kid.” The bars he grew up in served local color alongside beers and shots. “Bars to me were like theaters. They really captivated me. To this day I love to go into a bar, almost any bar, and sit at the far corner, where I get a view of everything.”

After finding journalism he toiled at The Gateway and Council Bluffs Nonpareil before Omaha World-Herald editor Carl Keith lured him away. Krajicek began on the night copy desk.

“It was an invaluable experience working with a lot of really smart people,” he says. “One night the police reporter called in sick and Carl (Keith) looked over at me and said, ‘Do you know where the police station is?’ ‘I can find it,’ I said. I had three bylines in the next morning’s paper.”

He says he learned the beat from mentors Jim Fogarty, “a legendary courts reporter,” and Keith, “who showed me journalism is both a craft and an art.”

In 1984 Krajicek decided to prove his mettle in a larger market. First, though he applied at the prestigious Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and was accepted. Thus began his ongoing affair with New York. He credits Columbia with “opening my eyes to the possibilities of the business” and “taking journalism from black and white to technicolor.” Among the profs who “inspired” him was Dick Blood, an old Daily News editor who told Krajicek he had what it took to make it in the “rough and tumble” tabloids world. Sure enough, Krajicek flourished there.

“There were things I would have gotten fired for at the World-Herald I probably would have gotten a bonus for at the Daily News. They encouraged you to cross lines and trespass and things like that. I guess I was bold. I was no shrinking violet. I hope I’m sensitive, but I’m big. I think I proved that even though I was from the hinterlands I felt comfortable moving around New York City talking to anybody about anything.”

Krajicek covered all manner of mayhem, from crack deals gone bad to mafia last stands. He co-wrote the first major profile of John Gotti and received threats. He gained a rep as a standout writer of terse, staccato prose and vivid details.

“I don’t like frou-frou language, I don’t like extraneous stuff, I don’t like over-describing,” says this Raymond Chandler and Raymond Carver devotee. “I love telling stories and stories from the police and criminal justice blotter are the greatest stories to be told in journalism.”

Six years of it though took its toll.

“It was just one horrible inhumane story after another, and it wore on me. Over time I lost my belief in the basic goodness of human kind.”

Krajicek addressing (UNO) University of Nebraska at                                                                                                                                                                                        Omaha students, ©photo by Jeremy Lipschultz

 

 

He switched gears to teach full-time at Columbia, where he’d been an adjunct. Eight years into his scholarly role he authored Scooped!, an acclaimed memoir-critical analysis of criminal justice reporting, and then left, abandoning almost sure tenure, to return to crime writing. Only on his terms.

“I relish telling these old true crime stories. I love the historical connection that I’m one of the last living remnants of True Detective magazine. These stories used to appear everywhere but print’s given over the true crime franchise to television.”

He makes occasional TV appearances as a true crime expert but mainly mines old cases for his stories. His next local book event is Nov. 9 at noon at the Jewish Community Center. Visit Krajicek’s Author’s Page at Amazon.com.

 

 

OPEN WIDE, Dr. Mark Manhart’s Journey in Dentistry, Theatre, Education, Family, and Life /A Biography

October 28, 2011 2 comments

 

OPEN WIDE

Dr. Mark Manhart’s Journey in Dentistry, Theatre, Education, Family, and Life /A Biography

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

 

Mark Manhart

 

 

A Life in the Open

We all lead a few lives or, if you prefer, double lives. Mark Manhart knows something about the mirrors of life. In his professional life, he is a dentist. In his personal life, he is a writer, director, history buff, landscaper, father, grandfather, and husband among a few different pursuits. “I think everybody has that kind of dual life going, especially people who get into such specialized things as dentistry. A professional has to lead two lives. Your open life and your other lives,” he said. The Omaha, Nebraska resident has an opinion on most everything, and he usually has a philosophy to support his viewpoint. Try this one on for size: “One needs a real work-a-day life and then at least one other life, some hobby, avocation, distraction, to work on to nearly inane proportions, so one can return to home base refreshed, go to bat again, and make your way before the inning and game is played out. I have gone through many family and professional things that were very much like sitting in the dental chair. All have been adventuresome.”

For this man of many interests and talents, life is also full of what he likes to call “natural wonders”—those unforgettable people and events that he enjoys experiencing and cultivating. He is all about opening new horizons of discovery in his personal and professional lives.

One domain feeds the other; one dimension offers solace from the other. “All of this, in any position or occupation, is terribly important to one’s sanity, pleasure, growth, and accomplishment,” is how he sees it.

For fifty years Manhart has indeed left the confines of home for the office, leaving behind his domestic incarnation for that of the highly trained, working professional who not only practices dentistry but is actively engaged in developing new treatments or therapies.

Then there is the life that revolves around some inner passion that enables him to return to work recharged, ready to resume life in the open and persevere. For Manhart, it is the world of arts and letters that feeds or fulfills him with the sustenance to carry on with renewed vigor. Specifically, it is the life of the theatre and his work as a playwright and director, and occasionally as an actor, that is a source of satisfaction, of solace, of energy, of intellectual and emotional discovery that offers a balance or complement to his professional and family endeavors.

There is also the life he maintains with his spouse. Here, too, Manhart is well-versed in that song and dance called marriage. He has been married twice. His first marriage lasted more than two decades and resulted in eight children. That union ended in divorce, but when he was ready to start a new chapter in his life, he did not hesitate to marry again, to a woman with a pair of children of her own. This second marriage-go-round has now exceeded more than two decades itself, which would seem to indicate he is the marrying kind.

He and his wife, a spitfire named Bonnie Gill, make it work despite being very different personalities. They may not see eye to eye on many things, and they may handle situations quite differently, but when it comes to what is important in life, they are simpatico. They are both searchers, ever inquisitive to turn the next page in life, to see what is over the next hilltop, to experience a new culture or way of doing things. Both are principled people. Both would rather give than take. Both are creative souls.

It seems Mark Manhart’s thirty-year dental partnership with Dr. Tom Steg can be thought of as a kind of marriage in itself. The two men are opposites in most ways but are kindred spirits where it counts most, as people of high character, intense curiosity, extreme professionalism, and with a penchant for pushing beyond the norm of dentistry to find the best ways of caring for patients.

With his tall frame, angular features, shock of silver hair, confident pose, resonant voice, formal manner, and reserved personality, Manhart cuts a striking, classic figure. He comes across at once as a bold, magnetic personality with an authoritative air and yet at the same time as a quiet, pensive, somewhat shy, even insecure soul. It is that duality that is so much a part of him. It is an expression of his charm and his complexity.

Call it fate or coincidence, but this practitioner of the healing art of dentistry also became a creative artist somewhere along the line. More likely, he was an artist  right from the start and his muse simply waited for when the time was right to finally bloom. Many of the qualities that make up a healer, after all, are much the same as those that characterize an artist: empathy, discernment, problem- solving, discipline, craft, even imagination.

Manhart still lives that personal brand, striking a balance between right- and left-brain activities that put him squarely in the mix of Omaha culture, community, and commerce. Long before social networking became a catch-word and lifestyle for the online era, he was engaging people from all walks of life and exploring ideas from disparate sources.

 

 

Calcium Therapy Institute

 

 

He was ahead of the curve on the Internet as well, launching a website for his practice back in 1995. He is on LinkedIn, Facebook, and all the other go-to social media sites. He blogs. He even conducts online training sessions for dentists from around the globe. He is as connected as anyone of his generation.

His inclusive, progressive approach to dentistry may best illustrate how open-minded and receptive he can be to new ideas and new collaborators. Eager to always improve his craft, he makes a habit of seeking out the latest advances by poring over dental journals from around the globe. Staying current this way has spurred him to make his own breakthroughs and to share his advancements with peers in the United States and abroad.

Away from dentistry, his work as a playwright and theatre director reflects his eclectic tastes, ranging from sentimental love stories to historical dramas to bawdy comedies to high- brow treatises to full-blooded biographies to English manor mysteries. From kitsch to classic, Manhart embodies it all.

Not so very different from the way he seeks to break new ground in dentistry, he actively seeks out new forums and challenges in theatre. He has done the same in education, too, as a champion for the Montessori method of early childhood instruction and for home-schooling. Although he has been a clinician most of his working life, he has also taught dentistry formally at the university level and informally in workshops and trainings.

Whether navigating the worlds of medicine, business, education, or art, he is an enterprising, energetic innovator open to new, even unconventional ways of doing things. He is what some people call today “a creative.” It is really another word for “eccentric” or for how one of his own children described him—“a half bubble away from genius.” That missing other half of the effervescent bubble can sometimes make him look like a fool or an idiot some people very close to him will tell you. It is a risk he is willing to take.

 

 

Great Plains Theatre Conference

 

 

His work and life are expressions of an inquisitive mind and a sensitive disposition. His office displays pictures of the charming digs he kept in The Passageway of Omaha’s historic Old Market district, the cultural heart and soul of the city he felt right at home in. Once the wholesale produce center for the city, the district was redeveloped beginning in the late 1960s and early 1970s into a European-style marketplace.

The Mercer family of Omaha led efforts to preserve and reuse the century-old warehouses as restaurants, galleries, theaters, shops, and residences. Manhart fit right in with the Old Market’s creative class denizens.

The Old Market has become one of the state’s largest tourist attractions, along with the world-class Henry Doorly Zoo as a magnet bringing visitors to the city. Due to health issues of his own, Manhart long ago had to set aside this second office in The Passageway at 10th and Howard Streets. The Market and his affection for that Old World location is evident in the photographs he displays of the brick-hewn office and environs he practiced in there. He also keeps an antique dentist’s chair in his West Omaha office as a token of his appreciation for “good old-fashioned” dentistry, craftsmanship, and values.

Manhart’s full life is not just a professional or aesthetic exercise. His life extends to family. He came from a huge clan, and he is the father of eight himself.

“I always wanted a large family of twelve children. A lot of kids who could become ‘adult’ adults. As a granddad, it is hard to see much success in that regard, so I must wait it out. I think I was a good father but that is slightly biased. People would say I am too harsh, too outspoken, too busy elsewhere, distracted too easily, too liberal, too persistent, frugal to cheap, an exaggerator, cold with little emotion, a trouble starter, and more. An old friend, a Jewish lady, hit it for me: ‘You are a starter. We have enough finishers.’ My obligation to the kids was to house, feed, protect them from others and each other in a way that they would be able to do the same as adults, and love them. Most of the love was, and will remain, secret between each one and me. Some day I want to write about that,” he said.

Cast members of plays from Great Plains Theatre Conference

Those who know Manhart from his life in the arts may not even know he is a family man, much less a dentist. Just as those who identify him as a dentist may not be aware of his other lives. That is all par for the course for someone who throws himself passionately into whatever endeavor he is engaged in at the moment. It is not as though he focuses on a passion to the outright exclusion of everything else, but he does tend to lose himself in whatever it is he is engaged in at the moment.

His single-minded devotion is evident in his dental career. He has been in private practice now forty-five years. Counting his time doing dentistry in the United States Air Force Dental Corps and his time in dental college, he has been actively engaged in the field of dentistry for more than half a century. However, the way he has chosen to practice, by utilizing noninvasive calcium treatments of his own design, has made him an outcast of sorts within his field. And being shunned by the dentistry establishment was just the beginning; legal action to stop him followed, but each case served to strengthen his resolve.

To further his somewhat nontraditional approach to dentistry, he founded and directs the Calcium Therapy Institute in his hometown of Omaha. The Institute is the vehicle for Manhart to do dentistry and science side-by-side, using his preternatural inquisitiveness and idiosyncrasy to investigate dental problems and treatment options along lines that do not necessarily conform or adhere to organized dentistry’s prescribed ways. That is just the way he likes it, too. Tweaking the nose of authority is a Manhart trait.

He enjoys playing the contrarian. Much the same way his late father, a farmer-turned-attorney-turned-inventor, was his own man who went his own way, damn the consequences, Manhart is a maverick accountable only to himself. He takes the road less traveled, whether in his personal or professional affairs, following an inner muse that neither brooks compromise nor suffers fools gladly nor worries about what people say.

There have been times when he has severed major threads in his life in order to do what he felt was right, regardless of how others perceived him and his decisions. For example, he and his first sweetheart, Mary, married and raised a large family together. She is the mother of his eight kids. After the kids were grown, the couple decided to end the marriage.

“Mary and I were happily married for a long time,” he said. Then they simply reached a place in time when they determined they would be better off apart.

Following years as an active member of the American Dental Association and officer in the ADA’s Omaha branch, he set aside organized dentistry as well. He has practiced without direct affiliation with the dental establishment— that is, his ADA membership and a position teaching at his dental school. However, the tradeoffs became more focused on his patient care, clinical research, and life beyond dentistry. At the time he won a lawsuit over patient treatment that was egged on by dentists who opposed his research in the advanced uses of calcium materials. When a number of specialists testified against him, there were subsequent, immeasurable losses to his reputation and health.

Aside from getting some of his findings published in the preeminent international dental journal more than twenty- five years ago, and in a few minor journals, his attempts to publish his work in America have been repeatedly rebuffed, much to his frustration. Nonetheless, in 2009 a prestigious European dental journal published his latest findings almost immediately and without reservation. His perceived banishment in the United States is a source of bitterness with him but just how much it bothers him is hard to gauge as he tends to dismiss it or brush it aside as no big deal. His wife, Bonnie, knows differently.

 

 

Bonnie Gill

 

 

How much has he been hurt by all this? “Very hurt. More than you can imagine,” she said. “I cannot even talk to him about it, and some of it I think he has brought on himself. But I think as he gets older it is killing him and I keep telling him, ‘You gotta let it go.’”

Bonnie said her husband can be hard to read, even for her, because he is such a mix of things and because he can hide behind an inscrutable, sphinx-like mask that serves to insulate and isolate him from those around him.

“I know him probably better than anybody else, I would say better than any human being on Earth,” she said. “He is a very complicated soul and a very kind person. It is sometimes the bane of his existence and actually what probably drew me to him. I knew before I ever got hooked up with him that he was incredibly honest. What I do not admire is that he can seem to turn that on and off and be extremely cruel when he wants to be, too. This is one of his flaws—it’s my way or no way—he cannot ever see the gray areas on some of this stuff, which he is very good at seeing on other things.”

She has no trouble standing up to him when she feels he is wrong and telling him so. He can handle being called out on his mistakes and has no problem with Bonnie’s candidness and her telling him like it is.

Bonnie said, “You know, it takes a pretty strong guy to accept being told, ‘I think you’re full of it.’ But that is the kind of relationship we have. It’s perfect because I do not ever have to get up wondering who I should be today.” In other words, she can be herself. With Mark,” she said, “I always know I can be who I am, warts and all, and it might be a little grumpy, but it’s going to get worked out.”

She has been there through the highs and lows of his dental life. She has seen the toll it has taken on him to seek the kind of vindication and recognition he wants but that has not been forthcoming and that likely will not come anytime soon, much less in his lifetime. “One time I asked Mark in the throes of this, ‘Do you want to be rich or do you want to be famous?’ And I did not even have to ask him because I knew what the answer was. He threw me a curve ball though by saying, ‘Both.’ I said, ‘You cannot have both, you can only have one.’ And then he said, ‘Famous,’ and I said, ‘I knew that.’”

Despite setbacks he has doggedly carried on, determined to prove people wrong. Call him intransigent or stubborn or willful or simply determined, he is like the proverbial dog that won’t give up a favorite bone without a scrap. As stressful and contentious as his dentistry battles have been, the bulk of his work in the field has been fulfilling. It is why he still does what he does at an age when the vast majority of his peers are long retired.

“Look at when dentists retire. I mean, dentists retire pretty darn early, and I passed that opportunity up fifteen years ago. I keep on because our calcium therapy works and it is such a delight to practice dentistry,” he said. “You know every day I see people who have troubles and we solve them. What more of an ego trip could you want?”

A pursuit quite apart from dentistry that Manhart is no less passionate or obstinate about is the theatre. This dramatic arts enthusiast has taken the hobby seriously enough to have helped form and operate three community theatre venues: the Rudyard Norton, the Kingsmark II, and the Grande Olde Players (GOP). He co-founded and directed the latter with Bonnie. Their Grande Olde Players established a niche by producing works featuring seniors and intergenerational casts. After a twenty-four year run the Grande Olde Players Theatre, which also featured jazz concerts, staged its final season in 2008.

Manhart has also participated in the Great Plains Theatre Conference hosted by Metropolitan Community College. The college’s historic Fort Omaha campus is the site of play labs where Manhart’s work has been read and where he and Bonnie have directed play lab readings of works by other playwrights. The conference receives submissions from playwrights across America, even from abroad. It is an intensive week-long concentration on craft. Some of theatre’s greatest talents participate as readers, respondents, mentors, and panelists, all in service of furthering the work of new and emerging playwrights.

Manhart does not kid himself. He knows he is not in the same league as many of the participants, who have included Pulitzer, Tony, and Obie award winners. The experience of having his work critically evaluated has not discouraged him but has emboldened him to keep writing and improving.

He has already accomplished much in local theatre. Without a lick of formal training he taught himself how to write, produce, cast, and direct productions and to manage theatre companies. He still writes plays and he still takes directing assignments today. Bonnie also continues to write and direct. Much like his experience in dentistry, he has often butted heads with theatre colleagues and collaborators, but, right or wrong, he has always remained true to himself, which is that of a stubborn, “tough old German,” as he likes to say with a wry smile. He is actually Swiss and German, with a little French thrown in, although the borders of those countries changed so often in the not-so-distant past that his precise lineage on his father’s side, the German side, cannot be determined with absolute certainty. On his mother’s side, the Swiss side, however, the family line can be traced back some eight hundred forty years.

The worlds of dentistry and theatre could not be more unalike on the surface. But look closer and what at first seems incongruent reveals similarities, which is why Manhart has drawn from each to enrich the other. Of course, when you think about it, dentistry entails a performance aspect. After all, the practitioner fulfills the role of expert healer for the patient, who comes in search of relief. The drama and expectation alone make it a kind of theatre. Conflict is at the heart of any drama and the inherent conflict in the doctor- patient relationship is that the healer may have to cause the patient discomfort, even pain, before healing occurs.

For many patients the mere thought of going to the dentist produces extreme anxiety. Sitting in the examination chair, surrounded by all that cold, hard, sterile equipment, which for all the world resembles instruments of torture, is enough to raise anyone’s blood pressure. Then there is the whir of the drill. Add to that the unpleasant past experiences many have had in a dental office, from scrapings to extractions to injections, and you have the makings for a tense situation.

Then there is the often exorbitant cost of dentistry that not all patients have the insurance to cover. The financial burden of care is a source of some resentment. It is routine nowadays for a few extractions or a root canal, for example, to cost many hundreds of dollars. When you talk about bridges, crowns, and implants, the bill ratchets up into the thousands. Finally, some doctors do not exactly have a winning chairside manner with their condescending, paternalistic I-speak-you- listen, I am-the-expert-you-are-the-patient attitude.

 

 

Manhart went to India to lecture on calcium therapies

 

 

In stark contrast to that dysfunctional model, Manhart goes out of his way to provide high-quality service at a reasonable rate and to deal with patients in a respectful manner that makes them a part of the care plan. He has also refined his craft to the point that his supple hands have a sure touch. He said there are qualities, some tangible, some intangible, that separate a master practitioner from a run-of- the-mill one.

“It is their touch, their approach, their finesse, whatever you want to call it,” he said. As a young dentist he had a chance to not only see but to feel some masters at work. “I thought, there is the kind of practitioner I would like to be.” By all accounts, he has become one. He said, “My rule always has been, man, if I can get my hands on you, you will never go anywhere else.”

Such finesse only comes through an assurance and confidence that cannot be approximated or faked. You either have it or you don’t. “That’s everything, yeah,” said Manhart. “You cannot really hide it. It’s there and it’s in everything you do. I worked for an orthodontist named Dr. Elmer Bay, and as a teacher this guy was absolutely wonderful because you never knew you were being taught. I used to make his appliances for orthodontics, and I saw his superlative results in everything. He was very old-fashioned. A few years ago Dr. Steg [Manhart’s dental partner] said to me, ‘I had a patient who was told by so- and-so she should not go to us because we are old-fashioned dentists.’ Well, that is the best compliment anybody has ever given us because those old-fashioned dentists like a whole lot we grew up with were just wonderful.”

One old-time dentist Manhart worked with, Dr. Leo Ripp, was so well-loved and appreciated that at his funeral mourners eulogized what a great dentist he was. Manhart never heard of such a thing. “Old Dr. Ripp, he could make the most beautiful gold crown you could ever believe seeing with the oldest crap you could ever think of using,” he said. “He really just was superb. He would put a crown in someone’s mouth, and if it did not stay forty years, something was wrong here.”

Manhart has the utmost respect for the men who taught him because they were working dentists. They were the first practitioners and second teachers he has tried emulating.

“Most of my training was given to me by dentists who were practicing fulltime and coming in a little bit each week and teaching. That kind of dentist is a clinical, hands-on dentist. They really know what is going on. But since the middle 1970s or somewhere in there, the dental school faculties have been dominated by fulltime teachers who go to practice a little bit and that changes the whole picture. That changes it even in the sense of the patient-dentist relationship. When you are working on your own patients and you are listening to them, you are really listening to them, number one, and you are making decisions together, number two, and you know little things like if this patient is not happy, they are going to go home and tell seventeen people. Now you either make them happy or you are in big trouble,” he said.

Conversely, he said a sense of accountability tends to be in shorter supply among dentists who teach fulltime because in college dental clinics dentists are not seeing their own patients, they are seeing whoever walks in for treatment, and these patients are apt not to get the same attention they would in a private setting. From where Manhart sits, too, there is something to the old adage, “Those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach.” Therefore, let the buyer beware.

In such a setting, he said, the dentist tends to be insulated from any repercussions that attend substandard care. A gulf or separation existing between dentist and patient is not consistent with quality care. He feels this insularity is engendered, too, in some dentists who belong to the American Dental Association, who use the organization as a buffer. “That insulation makes you act differently,” he said. Less compassionately or less empathetically perhaps. Rather than hide behind an association, Manhart puts himself right out there, taking full ownership of who he is and what he does. “When you go onto the Internet—this is the first thing I found out—you open yourself up to the entire world and a lot of dentists cannot allow themselves to do that,” he said.

Furthermore, Manhart strives to do the most for his patients with the least overhead for fancy equipment. He has developed an array of techniques, products, and applications that treats patients in minimally invasive or entirely noninvasive ways that are also quick and painless. He is efficient enough to get patients in and out of his office in short order but without resorting to shortcuts or rushing through procedures. That is because he has reduced procedures from several steps to just a few steps, eliminating waste, excess, and overkill. Yet he still takes time to actually examine the inside of the patient’s mouth, explain things, ask questions, and lay out options. He is all about finding long-term solutions, not quick fixes. It is the way informed consent is supposed to work, he said.

Arlene Nelson has been a patient of his for nearly forty years, and she appreciates his inclusive approach. “He shows me the X-rays every time. He says, ‘I want you to look at this.’ He just explains things to you and you just get a clear picture of what is going to be done and how long it is going to take and how many treatments or whatever. You feel like you are a part of the improvement. You really are, too. He puts you right in there. You are right there and you are a part of the healing process. He gives you an ear-by-ear, side-by-side walk with the healing,” she said. “He has really done me right. I have just been very pleased. He is very gentle, very sure.”

His old-fashioned approach is something she appreciates. “You know, I kind of like that. Not only that, but I had a tooth that was bothering me that was way in the back, and I actually called him at home on a Sunday and he said, ‘I want you to meet me at the office at one o’clock,’ and I did. I did not ever think I would be calling a dentist at home. It turned out he had someone flying in from wherever for treatment that day. I thought, oh my gosh. He is just so ready to help me. He is my kind of dentist.”

Paul Luc appreciates the holistic way Manhart treats dental problems. A Hong Kong native living and working in Tennessee, he is typical of Manhart’s patients from all over the country, even all over the globe, who have discovered the Calcium Therapy Institute (CTI) via the World Wide Web. Dozens more do every day.

Diagnosed with advanced periodontal disease, Luc studied the CTI website, contacted Manhart, and arranged to come to Omaha for a treatment. People from coast to coast and from overseas venture in every other week. Like so many of Manhart’s patients, Luc came to the Institute after “seeing and consulting with a variety of general dentists and periodontists … the options offered to me were not satisfactory. The mainstream approach may be clinically acceptable, but it is too generic and statistical in nature and not patient- oriented,” said Luc, who is a scientist. “I was searching for a holistic dentist. The trip was everything I had hoped for and more. Dr. Manhart’s approach is entirely patient-oriented. His method of treatment and diagnosis is very practical, realistic, and above all very scientific. There was no pain, no surgery, no blood, no X-ray, and no anesthesia. Within twenty-four hours after the initial treatment, my condition was under control. It improved drastically after two more days of intensive treatment.”

Luc found Manhart’s “genuine concern” encouraging. He also appreciated that Manhart was willing to share his immense knowledge with him, patiently answering his many questions and offering him the best options for his particular needs. Like more and more CTI patients, Luc uses several of its self-care products at home, including the Calcium Toothbrush, the Oral-Cal mouthwash, and the Calcium Chip set. “My gums and teeth are getting better every day. I am really amazed by the power and effectiveness of the simple, common sense approach and solution.”

There is more to the story. Luc was so taken by the results that he began focusing his scientific mind on a practical application for determining the presence of periodontal disease. Long story short, Luc devised a home test that he then presented to Manhart, who immediately saw that his patient had hit upon something worth developing.

“Paul came up with a superb test for periodontal disease,” he said. “It is very neat. He adapted our products in a certain way so that you test yourself at home to tell whether you have periodontal disease or anything to worry about with your gums being infected. Paul is very creative, and he came up with a very clever oxidase process for testing. All I did was tweak it and put it in a sequence of what to do. If we had some company to work with, it could be made very inexpensively with materials we have.”

A doctor being open to accepting an idea from a patient is rare enough. It shows that Manhart is not so high and mighty as to dismiss something a mere civilian suggests or, in this case, invents. He has too often been on the other side himself of being cast as the amateur or dilettante intruding into the holy domain of the experts or specialists. So he knows what it is like to be ridiculed and spurned and not taken seriously. He has a long history of being open to ideas from many quarters.

 

 

Manhart found a high standard of care in India

 

 

In September 2009 he and Bonnie were presenting the calcium therapies in Nice, France, when one of the attendees answered the following question Manhart posed: “What causes such an infection?” To which a man in the audience responded with, “Thumb sucking.” Manhart, the expert dentist, was bewildered that he had never thought of that explanation.

In his practice Manhart must be a people-person and thus he can turn on the charm and therefore transform the often awkward patient-doctor interaction into a relaxed exchange that disarms patients and makes them collaborators in their own care. Humility goes much further than arrogance he has learned. But with him, there is no ring of phoniness to the interaction. He is genuinely engaged and in the moment with you. You feel his full attention on you.

“I always remember how theatre helped me become a better dentist, because you have to play a role,” he said. “If you go into the office and play the role of a student, people do not buy it. If you cannot play the role of a dentist who is competent, who knows what the hell you are doing even though you maybe have to go in your office and read a little to make sure you know what you are doing, then you are going to fail at it. And it works the other way, too. You learn things on stage that work and make sense that can be applied to your dental work, and one of them for me was that we were always taught in dental school never to say things like, ‘Ooops’ or ‘Sorry, I didn’t mean to cut your lip off.’ You were taught to be impervious to mistakes. Well, it is an everyday thing because you are hurting people every day, and so how do you respond?

“I remember we were taught you never give a person an injection and say, ‘I’m sorry.’ That is heresy or it used to be, maybe it is not so much anymore. I just figured out, no, I have to say that, and so it has gotten to be a habit with me. Almost every time I give someone an injection and I know I have hurt them, I have to say, ‘I’m sorry,’ and it has to be real. That makes a person a better dentist, just simple empathy. Otherwise, it is not believable.”

Just as he has learned that genuineness is a big part of being a healing arts practitioner, he has learned it is equally critical to being an artist on the stage. In each circumstance it is about transparency and professionalism. It is all about being authentic or real. Anything less than that will not hold or convince the audience. People can smell a phony act from a mile away.

He has taken his ability to authentically, transparently engage people a step further by devoting much time to teaching his craft. For four years he was an associate professor at his alma mater, Creighton University Dental School in Omaha. One of his former students, Tom Steg, is now his partner. The two make an interesting contrast. Manhart is the tall, thick figure whose bigger-than-life vibe and presence draws eyes to him. Steg is a slight man with an insular personality and a just-above-a-whisper voice. But where they differ outwardly they share the same probing intellect that enjoys the give- and-take of rigorous inquiry.

For years, Manhart has demonstrated techniques to colleagues at dental conventions across America, even abroad. At various times he conducts seminars for dentists in his office or their offices, turning the quarters into teaching labs where he works on actual patients while dentists and hygienists observe. His work as a clinician-teacher is widely respected because he is not only skilled and informative but knows how to play to the crowd and work a room. He makes eye contact, he changes the inflection of his voice, he pauses for effect, he gestures with the tools of his trade in his hands. Like any good actor or orator, he uses his entire body and whatever props are available as expressive instruments of communication.

Being able to “perform” in front of people when the pressure is on is a knack he developed early on in competitive athletics and refined as a dentist and later in Rotary International and community theatre. The Rotary International website’s “About Us” section describes itself as “the world’s first service club organization, with more than one million members in thousands of clubs worldwide. Rotary club members are volunteers who work locally, regionally, and internationally to combat hunger, improve health and sanitation, provide education and job training, promote peace, and eradicate polio under the motto Service Above Self.”

Sounds like a hand-to-glove fit for Manhart, the man of varied interests, especially when the Rotary site gets around to the part that says “the benefits of a Rotarian include serving the community, networking and friendship, and promoting ethics and leadership skills.” That is Manhart to a tee. He can and did hold his own with Omaha movers-and-shakers when he was active in Rotary. He is not so much active in it anymore, but he still follows the organization’s principles in his private and professional lives.

He suffered stage fright during his first forays in theatre but interacting with patients and with peers as a dentist and getting up and addressing an audience at Rotary meetings helped instill a composure that he then transferred to the stage. In turn, he took what he learned in theatre and applied it to his profession, especially to the public speaking, demonstrations, and teaching he does. “It taught me in a way how to present myself in giving a clinic or giving a lecture. It taught me that talent,” he said.

He remembers the first time he ever went and presented anything in Chicago, host of the dental convention in America. He said, “It is like being on the best stage in dentistry, it really is,” and how much smoother and assured he was in that rarefied environment after honing his public speaking and theatre chops. He likes being on stage, whether in the playhouse or the examination room or the classroom or the convention hall. His hands are sure, his voice steady, his posture erect, and his demeanor confident in these respective arenas. Each is a turf he feels completely comfortable and competent on.

He transferred this same nonplused quality to local cable television, for which he wrote, directed, and hosted talk shows that produced some one hundred programs featuring guests from all walks of life. He developed and hosted a talk show on Omaha’s KLNG Radio for a time. He has also appeared in a number of local TV and radio commercials. The ham in him cannot help it. Besides, he is just one of those high- energy people, as is Bonnie, who has to be doing something.

Add to that his boundless curiosity, his stage presence, and his gift for gab and you have the proverbial talking head.

He is sure there is a correlation between the intuitive breakthroughs that have come to him in dentistry and the creative breakthroughs he has experienced as an actor- writer-director. Breakthroughs only come if you are open and available to them. It means preparing yourself for invention by putting in the work ahead of time and then letting your subconscious take over to incubate and birth ideas when they are ready to emerge.

“To me it is allowing your subconscious to think for you because your subconscious is always going,” he said. “A lot of these discoveries in dentistry were being worked on just like anything else and then suddenly there it was in front of you.”

He recalls the time the idea came to him of how a paper point used in root canals can be coated with calcium. “I always remember there it was right in front of me all along on the bracket table, and I had seen that a thousand times before, but now my subconscious had put two and two together, and I saw that putting the paper point plus the calcium together gave you a wonderful way of getting calcium where you need it—inside the tooth. I really think there are people who do not allow their subconscious to do much for them or they think, If I don’t think of something right now, I am never going to. But the harder you try, the worse it is. That surrender to the subconscious—I will think of it later—is where those discoveries come from. And one kind of discovery leads to discoveries in other fields.”

 

 

Manhart demonstrating techniques in Poland

 

 

His life in theatre has not only served as an inspiration and gateway for his professional career, it has also served as a buffer and sanctuary from his life in dentistry. For Manhart, there is no greater satisfaction than knowing he has rendered service to patients. But the demands of dentistry, as with any profession, can be taxing. That is why he prizes having the theatre to go to. He can leave the work-a-day world behind in order to lose himself in a realm of make-believe.

“It is such a welcome distraction from dentistry because dentistry would drive any person crazy. The theatre is such a complete change that it’s good for you. It is wonderful to go from the office and go do theatre, and completely forget you are a dentist and really use a lot of your talents and experiences to create something on stage,” he said. “And for so many people, myself included, the theatre is where you discover talents and abilities you never dreamed you had. Theatre is so much a part of the world and you can learn so much from it. In other words, if you can play something on stage and you can do it in front of people and make them a part of what you are doing, you make people laugh and cry and solve their problems … that is irreplaceable.”

“The most fulfilling thing about my involvement in theatre,” he said, “is that I get to show that the world is a stage and it is more rewarding to realize it in different ways than to be lost in a black hole of politics or religion.”

As he says, the theatre can be a place to work things out, such as unresolved issues and emotions. It is a freeing space. Therapeutic even. Seen in that light, it is no accident he has gravitated to the therapeutic side of dentistry. You might say it is his calling. Reading, painting, listening to music, landscaping, dining out, and traveling are other pursuits that help him escape. Tennis used to do the same for him. Before that, as a youth, it was basketball. “Those kinds of things let your other mind work, free it up,” is how he describes it.

 

 

Logo for the Grande Olde Players Theatre

 

 

His appreciation for the finer things extends to home. The residence he and Bonnie share is an open modern showplace whose many windows bathe the interior in natural light. Their passion for art and music is seen throughout the spacious, muted living quarters, including paintings he has done that hang on the walls and an upright piano in the dining room. They love to entertain, and their jazz nights transform their place into an intimate atmosphere.

Their love of nature and design is expressed in a walkout patio and garden whose landscaping Manhart conceived and executed. His knack for gardening comes from his mother and her proverbial “green thumb.”

The serene yet dynamic living space is an aesthetic retreat that reflects the cultured couple who inhabit it. It is easy to see what drew them there.

“We looked for almost a decade for this home, stumbled on it, and bought it the next day in September of 2000,” he said. “It and the three houses to our east were designed by

Stanley How, who must have been a serious student of Frank Lloyd Wright, the iconic architect of Fallingwater, the most famous residence in modern architecture. The design of our home, which was built in 1963, is nothing less than genius. Its modern layout is for all the senses and weather of this area of the world. The only things we did were move the laundry upstairs, put in some mirrors Wright would have liked and kept it simple and uncluttered. I hope to die in it. We have studied Wright’s architecture a long time and have toured his buildings and homes, especially his Taliesin East and West homes. I see our home as an homage to his concrete, long-lasting contribution to American culture.”

Then, too, there is the life we experience with our own siblings or kids. This is a bit more problematic where Manhart is concerned. He likes children. He fathered and helped raise eight of them, after all. But he has been by his own admission a somewhat distracted parent with a tendency to get caught up in his own activities to the diminution of his kids’. He can also be a bit of a distant curmudgeon who unconsciously withholds the affection and approval that presumably his children, even though they are all grown now with families and careers of their own, still crave from him, the strong, patrician-style patriarch. He also is not inclined to do family things or to attend family reunions unless persuaded or nudged, and then he invariably enjoys the gatherings.

Moreover, there is the life we carry on with friends, with neighbors, with associates, and so on. Manhart can hardly count the lives he has touched in the various guises he has filled, whether as doctor or teacher or speaker or director or friend or neighbor. His has been a long, varied life well- lived and one marked by all the connections he has made with people in his many roles. He likes the many hats he has worn and continues to wear. The fact there are many different constituencies and peer groups he can call his own is a manifestation of his diverse life.

Certainly, each of us leads an intense private existence that exists apart from but not entirely separate from our gainfully employed experience. A life of any length accrues with it a host of endeavors, roles, affiliations, associations, not to mention baggage, of both the personal and professional kind, whose whole is greater than the sum of the parts—each a reflection of different aspects of our self.

If nothing else, the biographical subject of this book, veteran dentist Mark Manhart, leads a rich life that seems a bundle of contradictions upon first glance. Now in his seventies, the native Omahan is equal parts old-fashioned practitioner, alternative dentist, “mad scientist,” artist, pragmatist, dreamer, searcher, connoisseur, businessman, inventor, family man, lover, disciplinarian, libertarian, and iconoclast.

A contemporary of Manhart’s, Father Jim Schwertley of Omaha, once told him, “Manhart, you are just like mercury, just when we think we have got a hold of you, you squirt out someplace else.”

Manhart admits, “That is a fair assessment.” Manhart’s wife said, “I am going to put that (the mercury epitaph) on your tombstone.” That is how “perfect” Bonnie thinks the metaphor is in capturing her mate’s fluidity.

The word mercury comes from the quixotic Greek god of the same name. A derivation of that word is mercurial. One definition of mercurial reads: “being quick and changeable in character.” That is not to suggest Manhart is a chameleon or that he acts a certain way one instant and another way the next, at least not anymore than the rest of us play various roles to suit the company or the occasion or the situation. No, it is just that he is one of those people who cannot be easily pinned down or pigeonholed because he is into so many things and seemingly all over the place at once. So, for the purposes of this bio, he might be dubbed Manhart the Mercurial. It not only has a nice, alliterative ring to it, it happens to accurately describe the man’s multifarious nature.

All are expressions of his different sides and lives. But in truth there is no secret life for Manhart. His life is an open book, relatively. Isn’t everything relative? His very public theatre work has certainly been no secret. His running for the Omaha City Council put him out there on the front lines of public-media scrutiny. His lay leadership in the Omaha Archdiocese made him a lightning rod for church- lay issues. His wholehearted embrace of the Montessori method of early childhood education put him at odds with the local education cabal. His attempts to introduce some of his calcium therapy innovations in the classroom met with stiff resistance and, eventually, resulted in his outright dismissal. His outspoken objection to traditional endodontic and periodontal approaches in favor of noninvasive calcium- based alternatives made him a pariah among dentistry’s specialist community.

The person we become at seventy or seventy-five, if we live long enough to find out, is naturally an accumulation and a conglomeration of everything that has gone on before: the incidents, the milestones, the highs, the lows, the decisions, and the mistakes we made. Our lives are the product of many commissions and omissions. No one is without fault or blame. The best we can do, as Twelve-Step recovery programs phrase it, is to strive for progress, not perfection.

Manhart has something to say about this live-and-let-live ethos, too: “Long, long ago I decided to avoid reliving the past myself or through others, like raising the kids. If I had done one thing different, I would not be here talking about all this. All since would have changed, so history is what it is and regret is a cop out or a waste. I try to learn from the past, repeat the good parts. I love to read history and concentrate on the present, and maybe on tomorrow till about noon. I do not wake till 10 a.m., nor believe in God till after lunch. I try to see people from angles and steal the good sides.”

 

 

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From the Archives: A road trip “Sideways” – Alexander Payne’s circuitous journey to his California wine country film comedy

October 28, 2011 11 comments

From the Archives: A road trip “Sideways” – Alexander Payne’s circuitous journey to his California wine country film comedy

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Alexander Payne’s new movie, Sideways, took a four-year road trip from high concept to stalled project to hot property. It finally opens October 20 in a limited national release. Charting its circuitous development offers an inside look at how feature film projects come together.

The inspiration for the film came from that most prosaic of sources, a 1998 unpublished novel by Rex Pickett, who drew closely from his own life to tell the sad and comic story of two loser buddies on a wine tour.

Adapted by Payne and writing partner Jim Taylor, the film follows best buds Jack, a libidinous ex-soap star, and Miles, a junior high English teacher and would-be writer, in a classic “men behaving badly” tale. On the journey, their addictions, obsessions and neuroses with wine and women catch up with them, turning an idyll into a comedy of errors. In Jack, the lame-brained serial seducer who never grows up, and in Miles, the anxious intellectual alcoholic who can’t take a stand, the two sides of the modern American male are on display.

With a director in as complete command of his craft as Payne (Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt), producer Michael London (Thirteen, House of Sand and Fog) got a director who left him little to do but sign off on expenditures, smooth ruffled feathers, cast a keen eye on dailies and keep the train that is a film production on track, meaning, on-schedule and on-budget. Payne, who also controlled the film’s “final cut,” found London a good fit.

“In terms of working with me and the actors, and then working in an effective way with the studio, he just speaks everyone’s language,” Payne said of London.

Although Sideways marks the first time the two worked together, Payne was near the top of London’s list to adapt the book to film.

“I was really just a fan of Alexander’s before this. I really didn’t have any particular history or connection with him other than meeting him very briefly at the Sundance Film Festival the year Citizen Ruthplayed there,” London said. “I’d read an early draft of my friend, Rex Pickett’s novel and we started talking about it as a movie.  At one point, Rex was thinking of adapting it himself and at one point we were going to adapt it together…I had really liked the book and had started talking to a couple of filmmakers about it. Alexander recently asked me, ‘Who passed on it for me to get this?’ I don’t think anyone passed. I think it’s a very particular type of material, and I think the instinct he was right for it was probably a good instinct.”

But London knew who and what he wanted.

“It’s not like there’s 50 directors in the world who could have done this story, and I think that’s probably true of most of the things Alexander does. They’re very unique to Alexander,” the producer said. “I was quite obsessed that he would relate to these characters (Jack and Miles) and to the whole idea of this kind of wasted wine trip and of men in mid-life crisis. It just felt like he would do something really special with that. I chased him through his agent and all the ordinary avenues, but without much luck.”

In that variegated, Byzantine way in which Hollywood deals get made, London said during the period he was trying to contact Payne in order to court him, the book somehow got to Payne through another source.

“But it wound up sitting in his hands for about nine months because he was finishing Election, and then he was touring and doing press,” London said.

Payne was in Scotland of all places when he finally called London to put his dibs on the project.

“He wound up going to Scotland for a film festival,” London says, ” and I walked in my door one Friday night and there was a phone message saying, ‘This is Alexander Payne. I just got off a plane in Scotland and I want to do this movie Sideways next.’”

London said Payne felt so strongly about the material that he became boldly proprietary about it, making his directing it a fate accompli.

“From our first conversation he was like, ‘I have to direct this. No one else can direct this.’”

YOU CAN READ THE REST OF THE STORY IN MY NEW BOOK-

Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film, A Reporter’s Perspective 1998-2012

A compilation of my articles about Payne and his work.  Now available for pre-ordering.

 

 

Alexander Payne and Michael London


 

 


 

 

 

Paul Giamatti as Miles, left, and Thomas Haden Church as Jack in "Sideways," a film often cited by critics as the best of 2004.


 

 

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A Hospice House Story: How Phil Hummel’s End of Life Journey in Hospice Gave His Family Peace of Mind and Granted Him a Gentle, Dignified Death

October 27, 2011 4 comments

 

 

When Omaha Magazine inquired if I would be interested in tackling a story that followed a family’s experience with hospice I immediately jumped on it because both my parents received hospice care in their final days. The Hospice House in Omaha offered their cooperation and identified the family who I profile in the story that follows, the Hummels. The plan was for me to spend an extensive amount of time with the patient, Phil Hummel, and his family and I did at first and then, as things often unfold in such situations, circumstances changed and I was unable to get the same access I had before. But I did get to know Phil, his wife Jo Ann, and their son Al fairly well before Phil passed and then I got to visit with Jo Ann and Al the day of their loss. My piece is the cover story in the November/December issue of the magazine, which is distributed at select sites all over the metro. You can subscribe to the publication. To see the story as it appears in its 12-page spread visit omahapublications.com or http://www.readonlinenow.com.

 

Phil Hummel near the close of his coaching-teaching career

 

 

A Hospice House Story: How Phil Hummel’s End of Life Journey in Hospice Gave His Family Peace of Mind and Granted Him a Gentle, Dignified Death

©by Leo Adam Biga

Published in Omaha Magazine

Even though the end of life comfort care known as hospice is better understood today than decades ago, misconceptions linger. Some mistake it as denying care. Others assume it’s only for special cases. The myths and misapprehensions make sense given how death and dying tend to be topics avoided rather then engaged in America. No two end of life scenarios unfold alike. But charting a real life journey through hospice can remove some of the fear and unknown that follow a terminal prognosis, which is why the Hummel family agreed to share their experience at Hospice House, the Josie Harper Residence. Executive director Gary George welcomed this reporter in to give readers a glimpse at a patient-family-caregiver story. The center, at 7415 Cedar Street. just east of the Bergan Mercy Medical Center, is a collaborative between Alegent Health, Methodist Hospital, the Visiting Nurse Association and the Nebraska Medical Center.

 

 

 

 

Phil Hummel

Inducted into Iowa Association of Track Coaches Hall of Fame.

 

 

A Rich Life

Family patriarch Phil Hummel of Woodbine, Iowawas a resident there 10 weeks last summer. Hospice provided a dignified end of life path and offered loved ones peace of mind his every need was met. Hummel, 78, died gently in Room 2 on September. 1. That last day, like each of the 69 preceding it, Phil’s wife JoAnn and son Alan were present. They were with him when he drew his last breath. In the weeks leading up to his death, his daughter Gail was on hand along with other family members and figures from his career as a high school educator and coach.

Married 56 years, JoAnn and Phil met at Tarkio (Mo.) College. She attended on an academic scholarship. He, on an athletic scholarship. Phil, a Riverton, Iowa native, excelled in sports at Sidney High School, where’s he’s a Hall of Fame member. His football-track exploits also earned him a spot in the Tarkio College Athletic Hall of Fame. After the couple married Phil was drafted in the U.S. Army and JoAnn followed him, first to New Jersey, then to Japan.

 

 

JoAnn and Phil in Japan

 

 

Back home, his military hitch over, the couple started their family and taught together at Woodbine High School. Her speciality was business ed. He taught U.S. government and American history. Summers he ran a house painting crew that did work all over western Iowa and the Omaha metro area. He was by all accounts as demanding a boss as he was a coach. During a highly decorated coaching career he led teams in many different sports but mostly made his mark as a cross country and track coach. He won several coach of the years honors and was a longtime Drake Relays official. The Iowa Association of Track Coaches Hall of Fame inductee twice led USA Track and Field youth teams to China. “Sports were a big part of our life, that’s for sure,” said JoAnn. “He was really busy coaching, and then on the side he was an official, and he refereed. He was gone a lot. And then when he wasn’t doing that he was hunting and fishing. It was a good thing I loved sports because that was Phil’s life. I was at all the games.”

 

 

Phil HummelHummel pictured with a star runner, Brady Dickinson.

Phil earlier in his coaching-teaching career

 

 

Her husband, who made his runners take the steep cemetery hills on the west edge of town, was a living legend. “Phil was known all over the state of Iowa,” she said. A measure of the impact he had on young people is the seven pages worth of condolence memories on the Fouts Funeral Home web page after his death. Like any good coach, Hummel was a surrogate father to his athletes. One young man he drew especially close to was Guy Mefferd, who with Phil’s guidance turned his life around and went on to serve as a U.S. Navy SEAL. Jan Sauvain, a family friend Phil coached in basketball, said he could be a strict disciplinarian “but never vindictive or to humiliate you or to demean you, just to give you a little insight into what you did wrong, and he cared about the kids after they graduated.” She said Hummel, unsolicited, recommended her to an AAU basketball coach in Omaha and wrote a glowing reference letter for her brother. “He did care, absolutely,” said JoAnn, who typed her hubby’s correspondence in her unofficial role as “Phil Hummel’s administrative assistant.” She said, “He was always interested to see what happened to students down the line. That’s why so many people came to see him in the Hospice House. Sometimes we had five to ten a day. They came from all over.”

Comfort and Care

When word got out Phil was dying, scores of athletes he coached, along with fellow coaches, even old teammates, came to see him. Each shared a piece of Phil’s end of life journey with him. As did Hospice House staff and volunteers. With its many windows looking out on nature and the great room’s soaring cedar ceiling, there’s a bright, uplifting feel to Hospice House. Also an intimacy and communal aspect quite unlike a hospital. Community meals are convened. Families and volunteers share treats. Musicians come to perform music. Children and therapy pets visit. The emphasis, said Ann Cole, a staff registered nurse, is comfort. ”

Death is really the final stage of growth and dying is a natural part of life and if we have enough time to work with people we can help them and make this really a positive time,” she said. “We can help them to accept what’s going on. First of all, we’re able to control the adverse symptoms that go along with the dying process — things like pain, nausea, vomiting, anxiety, constipation, agitation. Those are all things we often see in varying stages as the dying process progresses. “If we can control those symptoms and the patient knows you’re going to be with them, you’re going to support them, and you have enough time to develop this relationship, then there’s always something we can offer to comfort them. We can control these symptoms, make them the least they can be, so they can live a really comfortable life until death comes naturally. This is our area of expertise.”

Because Phil was alert and active almost his entire stay, he savored many moments with those dear to him and developed rapport with caregivers. He felt well enough most days to relax in the courtyard. He even went on regular outings to favorite haunts, such as the Horseshoe Casino and Olive Garden restaurant. He told stories and shared memories but mostly he listened, laughed and cajoled, holding court on the deck or in his room.

My intro to the Hummels came via a phone call to JoAnn’s cell. She answered from Phil’s room with, “We just got back from the casino with some of Phil’s friends. Phil just ordered Jimmy Johns.'” It’s not what I expected — a dying man living it up, so to speak. I came to see it as his serene surrender to fate — making the most of what time he had and appreciating everybody and everything around him. “He wasn’t scared,” said JoAnn.

Phil loved singing the praises of Hospice House. “Oh, I mean, they are so good it’s unbelievable,” he told me, his voice a heavy rasp from the radiation that seared his mouth and throat tissues. “That doesn’t mean we get everything we want. It’s just — they have a care and a love, and people come in and it doesn’t take long for people to understand that. I don’t know where you can move to a better place. There might be one, but I don’t know of any.”

For those, like Phil, given the opportunity to appreciate the life left to them, hospice is not the dour, bitter end but the last bright stage of things.

Bonds

“People think of hospice as a death sentence so often and it’s really about quality of life,” said Cole. “Hospice is working with the patient and family — supporting, teaching, making that quality of life a real possibility, and I think that’s what we did for Phil. If you can help families know what to expect, what will be done, and follow through on those things, they really learn to trust and the trusting relationship is very important.”

JoAnn and Alan praise the staff for easing the path. “They were wonderful there. It’s just a fantastic place,” she said. When she and her son left to go home at night, she said, they could be assured Phil was in good hands. Said JoAnn, “We knew if he needed any little thing they’d be running right over here because the nurse’s station is just around the corner.”

Alan admits he wasn’t sold on Hospice House before placing his father there. After moving him in though he became a convert. “Looking back now it could have been a cave as long as those people were there. The people that work there make that place what it is. Ninety-nine point nine percent go far beyond the call of duty.” JoAnn, a native Missourian with a show-me attitude, noted the sincere empathy. “When they had kind words to say I never felt they were just making it up to make me feel good. I think they really felt that way. That’s why they’re there.” A little warmth goes a long way. Besides, said Ann Carol, “Who wants a cold nurse?”

 

 

 

 

It wasn’t just healthcare providers who impressed JoAnn either. “The volunteers are fantastic. Like the Cookie Lady. Her husband was a resident there and she wanted to do something for the Hospice House, so she decided she’d bake cookies. Every Thursday she brings them in. It smells so good. Even the cleaning ladies are fantastic. Nice, pleasant, do a beautiful job.”

Gary George, who’s headed the center since its 1998 opening, said everyone who works there embodies “a sense of passion,” adding, “We want to be doing this kind of work.” He describes it as “a calling to be working with people at end of life that then links to an honoring of life and a recognition that end of life is part of life, not something to be feared, not something to be run from. It’s recognizing all the rich…things that can come out of end of life when people are being walked through that journey.”

“Compassion,” is the common denominator said certified nursing assistant Joanne Waltsky, who, like Ann Cole, got close to Phil. “These people are like our family. We get some of the crabbiest people in the world and they always end up loving us — I mean, always. It’s awesome, it just makes us feel good.” The Hummels shared how Waltsky’s habit of singing while making her rounds rubbed Phil the wrong way, at first, before he melted under her buoyant charms.

“The first night I came in here it was a helluva night,” Phil said. “Six o’clock the next morning, somebody came in here singing. Who the hell can be that happy in the morning? I told my wife,’ I don’t think I can put up with that.’ By noon she had me won over. You want to know why? This gal had everything we needed whenever we needed it, before we knew we needed it. That’s not a joke. “And she’s still going, and the others are just like her, just happy as clams, which made us happy of course. I can’t say any more about this place than if I tried, and I’m trying, because they’re good.”

 

 

The following was read at the funeral:

A Thank You from Phil:

How can you thank your wife for almost 57 years of support and loyalty and
for the work doing the driving to Omaha 60 miles down, 60 miles back, not
letting anyone share the load?

How do you tell your children thanks for being the people they are after their father spent more time with other people’s children?

How do I show Bob Sauvain my feelings about my old hunting and fishing
buddy, who took me with him even when he knew I was long past my prime?

There are others in my neighborhood.like Dave and Jane Gardner for the
food. And Jane for getting the flowers and planting them in the pots on our
deck, knowing how well I like the deck with flowers.

To Bob and Sharon’s kindness and help at our beckon call.

To Joe and Cheryl Book for the many times they helped us out of many
simple things we were unable to do anymore.

To Randy Taylor for all the help that was given to us.

To John, Peggy and Matt Monahan for helping us during the winter snows
and also the summer yard work.

I was blessed to be hired by the Woodbine School District and to able to
teach and coach with some of the best in the profession. With me it became a love affair each day. I was where I wanted to be.

To Carter Oliver, who always stopped by in the evenings to see how the old
folks were doing.

I was lucky to meet many coaches across the state and many in the Mid-West who shared their views and thoughts.

Thanks to the Iowa Association of Track and Field Coaches for the many
cards, letters, phone calls and emails. Particularly Denny White, Steve
Halligan Family, Ira Dunworth and Kirk Schmaltz for the visit.driving all
the way to Omaha from Ames to see me.

To The Boys Association and Drake University for the opportunity to serve
on their committees and Drake Jury.

Thank you to all in the Woodbine community for support in taking the
Washington, DC trips, trusting me to take their children for 6 days on a trip
they would remember for a lifetime.

To Sue: I was off to college and in the Army before you became my little
sister. Had things been a little different, I know we could have been a lot
closer.

Last but not the least, Brother Ted: I love you Ted. The one thing most I
remember is when we were growing up in the summer. Every day when
breakfast was over, dishes done, I was out door. I would grab the bat, ball,
glove, jump on the old bike, down the hill, go up the dusty road stirring as
much dust for you as I could. All the time you were yelling wait for me, give me a ride, take me with you. How I wished I had stopped and picked you up.

Thank you All.It’s been a great run.

Posted by: Gail Hummel – Sioux Falls, SD – daughter Sep 16, 2011

 

 

 

Because Phil was there so long and his wife and son there so much, the bonds between caregivers, patient and family had time to to ripen. “Everybody was really attached to him and they were really fond of him,” Alan said. “They want to keep from getting attached but your dad won them over,” JoAnn told Alan. “They won him over,” Alan replied.

Attitude is Everything

Waltsky said in contrast to some patients who sink into despair and wallow there despite her and her workmates’ best efforts, Phil embraced his remaining life. “We try to bring people up but they don’t always want to,” she said, “but Phil every morning got the day planned and told us what he was doing. He touched everybody there. He was so independent. He was everybody’s friend. He had so many visitors. When his coaching friends and past students would come in he’d always introduce me like I was family. I just loved him.”

She said the entire Hummel family made an impression. She was struck by how JoAnn and Alan befriended a woman without any family in the room next to Phil’s, checking in on her, bringing her goodies. “They’re just loving people, you know, and everybody loved that. They were just joy.” JoAnn Hummel returns the compliment by saying she never conceived hospice would be such “a positive thing. I’m so glad we went there. That was the only place for that kind of care. It was either that or go back to Woodbine to a nursing home, and Phil didn’t want to do that. This was just perfect.” She’s certain Hospice House helped extend his life. When he arrived in June, he was given less than a week to live. Ten weeks later, he was still there.

A Life Interrupted

His cancer jolted the couple. They were busy enjoying their hard-earned retirement, traveling to Las Vegas, wintering at a Florida condo, spending time with family and friends. The Council Bluffs casinos were favorite getaways. Phil loved the outdoors. Then, in April, he discovered a large lump on his throat while shaving. After going in for tests at Methodist Hospital, the bleak diagnosis of cancer unsettled his and JoAnn’s world. “The worst you can have,” is how a physician put it. Inoperable. An aggressive regimen of chemo and radiation in Omaha followed. “I truly think the doctors knew it was an impossible slide but worth a shot and I thought it was worth a shot, because the alternative would not be any good if you just left it alone,” said Phil. “I had all the faith in the world the treatments were going to fix it,” said JoAnn.

Only Phil didn’t get better. The tumor didn’t respond as hoped. “I just saw him get sicker and sicker and more miserable,” said JoAnn. Making one-hour drives each way for debilitating treatments took their toll. “We would drive back and forth every day,” she said. “On the weekends he would just go in the bedroom and stay in there in the dark. He couldn’t eat. It was terrible. His neck was getting worse and worse, just burned.” “I couldn’t get anything down,” Phil said. On Mondays it began all over again. “It was a hard time,” said JoAnn. Spring turned into summer when the oncologist reported what the couple already suspected — the tumor wasn’t shrinking. “That was a bad day for me when he said we are going to stop all treatment,” said JoAnn. “I know when it was exactly — the 22nd of June. We came in here (Hospice House) the 24th.”

Phil was precariously near death. “When we came in here the doctor said maybe five days,” JoAnn recalled, “Phil hadn’t had anything to eat or drink for two weeks, only kept alive with hydration. He couldn’t raise his head off his chest.” I couldn’t move. I was bad,” Phil said to me.

Phil Accepts Impending Death but Continues Embracing Life in Hospice

But then a remarkable thing happened. “When the swelling began to go down from the radiation treatments he began to be able to sip a couple sips of water and eat a little apple sauce,” said JoAnn. “It wasn’t long before he was eating more things.” Alan plied his father with food but Phil could never hold it down. Yet the better Phil felt, the hungrier he got for his favorites, including hamburgers. It’s all he talked about. Alan was reluctant to give him one, until he finally threw caution to the wind. “It took us awhile to figure out it doesn’t matter — give him whatever he wants. I went to Five Guys Burgers and Fries and brought it back. He didn’t eat very much of it but it was the first time in at least a week he was able to hold down food,” recounted Alan. “You would have thought it was the first hamburger, the best hamburger, some kind of divine hamburger. Seriously, the look on his face…That hamburger is when he turned the corner from being where we thought there was no way to maybe there’s some hope he’ll hang in there a little while, and it was.”

Rebounding

Phil gradually regained strength. Not long after his rebound began, tells JoAnn, the doctor that gave Phil precious little time to live stopped by Phil’s room. “He sat down and pulled his chair right up to Phil’s face.” “Nose to nose,” is how Phil put it. “And,” JoAnne continued, “that doctor said, ‘I can’t believe what I’m seeing.’ That he’d come around. And you have to give a lot of credit to this place because it’s a wonderful place.” Phil agreed, saying, You know, I feel so far from where I was when I came in, but I accepted it (his fate). Maybe it’ll give me some more days down the road, I don’t know.” “It’s a miracle you’re even here,” Alan told him then. Five days turned into 10, 10 into 20…

Certainly no one expected Phil to venture out, albeit confined to a wheelchair, to eateries and attractions, but that’s what he did and if residents get there early enough it’s how hospice ideally transpires.

“The fact he was so positive about going out on his little excursions, and I’m sure he probably didn’t always feel the best, is what hospice is about. It’s to go out and do the things you love to do. You’re not confined to bed in this place. We encourage people to do what they can do. We’ve had people go home and stay overnight a couple days and come back,” said Cole.

The turnaround Phil experienced, said George, “is neither usual nor unusual, it happens sometimes, and for who knows how many reasons.” He added, “Sometimes people do seem to have some spark, some different amount of energy when they get here, and for some people it may be due to more stimulation and activity, for other people it might be a sense of relief — some sort of freeing up and letting go of responsibilities, letting loose of some things.

“Lots of people bring treasures here that mean things to them. For many people that’s photos. For one guy it was a full life-size cutout of John Wayne. For one of our earliest residents, John, it was a little bookshelf filled with these thick novels and I said, ‘Oh, John, you must have brought along your favorite books,’ and he said, ‘Oh, those aren’t my favorites, those are just ones I have left to read.’ I don’t know how many he got to read while he was here but that’s what he planned to do. I thought that was amazing. “People come with a bit of a sense of adventure sometimes. I always admire that attitude of here’s something new and different — kind of leaning into it.”

That same leaning into one’s dying days is what Phil Hummel exemplified. A small bulletin board in his room displayed photos of things and people he cherished: family, friends, track. An American flag emblem. And a hand printed Bible verse from his granddaughter Jessica about the virtues of love. He literally lived for visits by friends and loved ones, former schoolboy tracksters, hunting-fishing cronies, and for those casino-restaurant forays. Not everyone can be so active. For most, their illness is too advanced to allow for much mobility or independence, whereas Phil prided himself on going to the bathroom alone.

“Our residents tend to come to us later in their disease process then they used to, so on the continuum Phil was a little bit more on the active end of things when he came,” said George. “Most of our residents are no longer at a point where they’re any longer coming and going so freely and wanting to do that even. But he also was a person who came, it seems to me, with that drive — this is what I want to do, this is how I want to do this. He kind of made that happen along with his family.”

 

 

 

 

An Unforgettable Character

Phil himself theorized his “cantankerous” spirit may have spurred his comeback. Action follows attitude, even when dying. Phil Hummel’s gregarious, generous attitude set the tone for his end of life experience and everyone around him. “You know, he was one of those patients none of us will ever forget,” said Cole. “He was just a delight, really a people lover. I picked that up. He really, really cared about people. He talked about his coaching days. It was so obvious he cared about everybody. And even the last couple of days, he was not a complainer. “You had to really take a lot of nonverbal cues as to what’s going on, which is something we do all the time. He always thought about other people, never about himself. ‘How was your weekend?’ he’d say.”

Alan Hummel remarked, “I don’t know how he did it. I thought he was in a bad mood for maybe only one day — and that was the first day.”

The Beginning of the End

After thriving for so long, the end came rather abruptly. On Friday, August 26 Phil was, if not a picture of health, a still vital man. He was keen for the college football season to start so he could root on his beloved Iowa Hawkeyes. Still stinging from a “disasterous” day at the casino, he anticipated better-luck-next-time. He played amiable host to two journalists in his room. Small talk came easy to him as he relaxed in the tranquil courtyard. The last image of him was a tired but content man ready to meet whatever life next presented him, even death.

When I called JoAnn Wednesday, August 31about stopping by she informed me in a taught, severe voice, “Phil’s taken a turn for the worse.” The morning after I saw him he’d suffered a bathroom fall, not breaking any bones, but hitting his head and scuffing his arms and legs. He didn’t lose consciousness. JoAnn and Alan were there. Alan was the first one in to help his father. The nurses were soon on the scene to attend to his scrapes and bruises and make him as comfortable as possible in his recliner. The fall precipitated a rather rapid decline.

“Thats what started it. From then on it was down hill all the way,” said JoAnn. “He whacked his head pretty good. I think he might have been a little concussed,” said Alan. “I don’t know he was in a lot of pain, he didn’t talk about pain,” said JoAnn. “He would have never told anybody if he was,” said Alan. “Had to be strong,” added JoAnn.

Acting on cues, the nurses gave him morphine. “We left him in his chair and he slept the whole day, and then that made him sore,” said JoAnn. “He didn’t eat anything. That was Saturday.” “He slept all day Sunday,” said Alan.”He was conscious but he just didn’t want anything to eat, and he really didn’t want to talk,” said JoAnn. Another sign Phil’s body was shutting down and he was slipping away was when he stopped showing interest in the therapy dogs he used to enjoy. Through the weekend and into Monday and Tuesday he was more and more in a somnambulant state. “He’d wake up, talk a little bit, say a few words, and go right back to sleep,” said JoAnn. “He started babbling, too, like talking to someone who wasn’t there, reaching for stuff,” said Alan. “It was the beginning of the end I’m afraid,” said JoAnn.

Into Wednesday though Phil clung on to what he could. “When they tried to put him into bed he absolutely refused,” said Alan. “They had to sedate him to get him out of his recliner into the bed. Mom said he didn’t want to go to the bed because he knew once he did that was it — he wouldn’t come out…” The robust Phil they knew soon disappeared. “That’s the last we heard from him. When his eyes would open it looked like no one was home…they were all glassy,” said Alan. “Usually when I said something he would look toward me,” said JoAnn. No more. “That was extremely hard to watch, extremely,” said Alan.

The Gift of Time

For the family, there was the consolation of two extra months. A true gift. “How many times did I say that today?” Alan said to his mother the day Phil died. Even though they knew it was coming, losing a loved one still hurts. “At the risk of being cliche, and Mom said it this morning, too — you say you’re prepared, you think you’re prepared, and there is no preparing. You just can’t be prepared,” Alan said. “I figured we would have been at this point a long time ago. We knew the outcome was going to be bad, but he had a good couple of months, seriously.”

Sitting at the dining room table in Alan’s home only hours after Phil passed, son and mother recounted the blessing the Hospice House turned out to be. “All those people who came to see him. Dozens and dozens and dozens of people,” JoAnn said. “I should have kept track of the names.” “It’s been really good,” said Alan. “I think he actually had fun.” “He did,” JoAnn confirmed. “It sounds horrible, but it’s true, I think he had a good time,” added Alan. “When all the track people came from eastern Iowa, they stayed five hours. They sat out on the patio and Phil ordered Jimmy Johns. They all had lunch out there. He had a great time. It made him forget what the situation was,” said JoAnn.

If we have the choice, maybe we should all go the way Phil did. “Absolutely,” said Alan. “Millions of people never get that opportunity.” JoAnn said while “it hasn’t been easy” what helped make it more tolerable was the gradual transition Phil made “from one stage to the next stage,” the “wonderful” care he received and his own serene attitude. “Phil was just resigned, too. He didn’t fight it. If this is the way it’s going to be, it’s the way it’s going to be.”

Hospice House became such a routine in the family’s life that being separated from it feels like a loss, too. “I’m going to miss it, I hate to say that. It’s going to be funny not to go there,” said Alan. “We were there a lot of days,” JoAnn said. “It was weird to leave there after cleaning out the room and it was empty. No one there. None of my favorite girls around,” said Alan.

Lasting Impressions and a Request Fulfilled

What workers were present the day Phil died were moved by Phil’s passing. “A lot of tears were shed that day by the staff,” JoAnn said. He seemingly touched everyone there.

“Phil was a leader and teacher all the way to the end of his life,” said Gary George. “I will remember Phil and his family taking every opportunity to continue to come and go from Hospice House to enjoy life to its fullest. On many occasions I saw them heading out the front door for some adventure together.” The same front doors Phil and family came in and out of are the doors Phil exited for the final time after his death. “We do not want to ‘usher death out a side door,’ or make it seem that death is too awful to look at ” George said. “This I believe is an important feature of Hospice House.”

For Ann Cole and Joanne Waltsky, Room 2 will always be Phil’s. Said Cole, “You couldn’t help but love the guy. He was totally about seeking the positive things in people and affirming that and making them better. You would walk away from his room and just feel so good and hope that you had given him half of what he gave you. He was, oh, so gracious.”

George said when a resident dies “families and friends are given the time, space support they need and my co-workers stand by ready to offer whatever they can,” adding, “This may involve tears, hugs, tissues, offers of a beverage, another chair, a shoulder to cry on…silence, storytelling, or tears mixed with laughter.”

The giving goes both ways. JoAnn and Alan brought flowers from Phil’s funeral to Hospice House, where, per tradition, a candle burned in his memory. JoAnn will be back — she has walnuts and gooseberries for the Cookie Lady. The family asked that memorial donations be made to Hospice House and many were made. Typical of the man, Phil Hummel wasn’t interested in how he would be portrayed. But he did request we emphasize the quality caregiving and warm sense of community at Hospice House. “I want you to give as much attention as you can to this facility,” he said.

From the Archives: Hollywood dispatch from the set of Alexander Payne’s “Sideways” – Rare, intimate, inside look at Payne and his filmmaking process

October 26, 2011 13 comments

From the Archives:

Hollywood dispatch from the set of Alexander Payne’s “Sideways” – Rare, intimate, inside look at Payne and his filmmaking process

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

I am taking Alexander Payne up on his invitation to view the making of Sideways, his first movie made outside Nebraska. My America West early bird special from Omaha to Phoenix, Ariz. gives me plenty of time to think on this Oct. 27 morning. From Phoenix I am to catch a commuter flight to Santa Barbara, Calif., the nearest city to the Sideways shoot and the start of wine country.

In this $17 million project lensed for Fox Searchlight Pictures that began filming Sept. 29 and wrapped Dec. 6, Payne is once again exploring the animus of dislocated characters running away from their problems and seeking cures for their pain.

Coming off About Schmidt, the 2002 hit that played more sad than funny for many viewers, but that garnered critical plaudits, a juried Cannes screening, a handful of Oscar nods and the biggest box-office take yet for any of his films – an estimated $106 million worldwide – one might expect Payne to lighten up a bit.

After all, his films have thus far fixed a withering satiric-ironic eye on human frailties.

Citizen RuthElection and About Schmidt  heralded him as an original auteur, a considered observer and a strong voice in the emerging post-modern cinema.

One only has to recall: paint-sniffing Ruth Stoops, the unlikely poster girl for the embattled-exploitative abortion camps, in Citizen Ruth; student election-rigging teacher Jim McAllister acting out his frustrations against the blind ambition of student Tracy Flick in Election; or the existential crisis of Warren Schmidt, an older man undone and yet strangely liberated by his own feelings of failure inSchmidt, a funny film that still felt more like a requiem than a comedy.

While Sideways will never be confused with a Farrelly brothers film, it’s a departure for Payne in its familiar male-bonding structure, its few but priceless slapstick gags and its romantic, albeit dysfunctional, couplings. Its surface contours are that of a classic buddy movie, combined with the conventions of a road pic, yet Sideways still fits neatly within the Payne oeuvre as another story of misfit searchers.

In Sideways, the search revolves around two longtime California friends, the shallow Jack and the intellectual Miles, who ostensibly set off on a fun, weeklong wine-tasting tour in the verdant rolling coastal hills northwest of Santa Barbara. Their trip soon turns into something else, a walkabout, pilgrimage, forced march and purging all in one, as they confront some ugly truths about themselves en route. The buddy pairing is built on a classic opposites-attract formula.

If, as they say, casting is most of a film’s success, then Payne’s home free. After seriously considering filling the rich parts with mega-stars George Clooney (Jack) and Edward Norton (Miles), he went with “the best actors for the roles” and found perfect fits. Jack, played by Thomas Haden Church (best known for the 90s TV series Wings), is the dashing, skirt-chasing extrovert, a former soaps actor reduced to voice-over work. Now in his 40s, he’s about to be married for the first time, and this inveterate womanizer goes on the wine tour not to enjoy the grape but so he can go on one last fling.

As he tells his well-moneyed bride-to-be, “I need my space.”

Code words for philandering.

Miles, essayed by Paul Giamatti (American Splendor), is the smart, neurotic introvert – a failed writer unhappily stuck as a junior high English teacher and still obsessing over the ex-wife he cheated on. Miles concocts the tasting tour as much to indulge his own seemingly perfect passion for wine, which he still manages to corrupt with his excessive drinking, as to treat Jack to some final bachelor debauchery. When Jack announces his intention to get he and Miles laid, it’s clear that as much as the repressed Miles expresses dismay and outrage at Jack’s libidinous behavior, he lives vicariously through his friend. And as much as Jack is irritated by Miles’ depression, often on the verge of, as Jack says, “going to the dark side,” and by Miles’ warnings that he curb his unbridled sexual appetite, Jack understands his friend’s dilemma and appreciates his concern.

Eventually the two hook up with a pair of eager women whose presence upsets the balance in the buddies’ relationship and redirects the tour. Jack loses his mind over Stephanie, a hottie party girl of a wine pourer played by Sandra Oh, a darling of indie cinema. Longtime companions, Payne and Oh were married in January. Miles tentatively feels things out with Maya, a nurturing waitress and fellow wine buff portrayed by Virginia Madsen, a veteran of features and television.

In classic road picture fashion, the foursome traverse a string of wineries, diners, motels and sundry other stops on the highways and byways in and around Santa Barbara, Los Olivos, Solvang and Buellton. Along the way, relations heat up with the gals before a reckoning – or is it bad karma? – causes things to come crashing down on the guys. Each has his own cathartic rude awakening. A pathetic, repentant Jack goes through with the wedding. A wizened Miles, perhaps finally outgrowing Jack and exorcising his own demons, takes a hopeful detour at the end.

I am about to take my own detour.

During a brief layover in the Phoenix airport, where faux southwestern themes dominate inside and tantalizing glimpses of real-life mesas tease me outside, my fellow travelers and I are reminded of the raging California wildfires when flights to Monterey are postponed due to poor visibility. On the hop from Sun City to Santa Barbara, sheets of smoke roll below us and billowing plumes rise from ridges on the far horizon beyond us.

I’ve arranged for the Super Ride shuttle to take me to Solvang, the historic Danish community I’ll be staying in the next six nights. At the wheel of the Lincoln Town car is James, a former merchant mariner who describes the Marine Layer that drifts in from the Pacific, which along with moderate temps and transverse valleys, makes the area prime ground for its many vineyards.

We cut over onto U.S. 154 and then into Buellton, home of Anderson’s Split Pea Soup, passing an apple orchard and ostrich farm en route to the kitschy, friendly tourist trap of Solvang and its gingerbread architecture. Everything is Danish, except the Latino help. Michael Jackson’s Neverland ranch is nor far from here and I’m told the veiled pop star is a familiar sight in town. After settling into a low-rent motel where most of the crew stays, I unwind with a walk through the commercial district, ending on the outskirts of town, where a mini-park overlooks the Alisal River Course below and oak tree-studded hillsides beyond. The brushed, velvety blue-green hills resemble a Bouguereau painting of French wine country. All that’s missing are the peasant grape-pickers. Wildfire smoke filters a screen of sunlight across the hills, obscuring outlying ridge lines in a ragged gray silhouette.

After a Danish repast in the afternoon and a burger-malt combo at night, I make last minute preps in my room for tomorrow, my first day on the set.

YOU CAN READ THE REST OF THE STORY IN MY NEW BOOK-

Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film – A Reporter’s Perspective  1998-2012

A compilation of my articles about Payne and his work.  Now available for pre-ordering.

 

For some scenes, not this one, I stood directly behind or beside Payne as he directed



Producer Michael London


DP Phedon Papamichael




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